King of the swingers
A visit to a nature reserve that rescues orangutans feels like a privilege, writes David Jesudason
Borneo is a country of immense beauty, where there are rainforests, mountain ranges and also massive biodiversity: more than 360 new species of animals were discovered in the last decade. Sadly, though, this incredible habitat is under threat, with huge swathes of virgin forest being cleared for palm oil trees to be planted. Palm oil is used in much processed food, and is also used as a biofuel, although some say that the reduced carbon dioxide omissions are offset by the effects of the deforestation involved in farming it.
Logging companies have torched down so much forest that the burning smell can reach as far as Singapore.
Oasis of wildlife
I expected to see fires raging at the side of the road – but the areas where we travelled on had been cleared long ago. Instead you are struck by the swathes of palm oil trees rocking in the wind and the convoys of logging trucks which clog up the road, creating huge crater-sized potholes.
Our destination was the Kabili-Sepilok Forest Reserve, near the town of Sandakan in the Malaysian state of Sabah. It is an oasis for wildlife of over 4,000 hectares where the rainforest has been allowed to flourish and has become home to the orangutan rehabilitation centre.
The orangutans (the word means “man of the forest” in Malay) are often found in a heart-breaking condition in the areas where the forest has been cleared. They are malnourished, dehydrated, injured and often suffer from stress and depression long after their life-threatening ordeal is over. The workers at the centre nurse them back to health: the orangutans are bottle-fed, microchipped, and taught how to swing and climb while being constantly monitored by the resident vets, and some of them are eventually released back into the forest.
Fear of the forest
When the animals are back to health the staff then have to coach out of them their fear of the forest and their dependency on humans – this a long process and when are returned to the wild some are unable to cope with the strains of their natural habitats.
It offers visitors the chance to watch the orangutans in action when they are fed twice a day in areas viewed by crowds of onlookers.
Wardens from the park throw down fruit and around 10 of the animals appear from the distance, seemingly knowing that they are going to appear in front of an easily pleased audience.
The orangutans swing down from ropes to eat the bananas and you can see close up just how similar they are to human beings, a thought which makes the destruction of their habitat even more saddening. Their hands are so human-like that when they grasp food and peel bananas you imagine that you are watching our primitive past. The apes are in varying states of health – some have hair that looks more ragged than other, but what hits you immediately is the strong reddish-brown of their coats.
They are also quite timid and at times don’t seem adverse to sharing their food out – although sometimes it’s certainly a case of every ape for himself, in fact not altogether unlike a buffet I had the day previously at the beach in Kota Kinabalu.
Aside from the orangutans, there are also rainforest trails which give walkers the opportunity to see rare birds, flowers and trees – although the squeamish may want to avoid the leeches and beetles.
Melissa Howarth, a British worker at the centre run by a UK charity, says that the work undertaken by the facility is for the hundreds of orangutans which have lived in the grounds since it was established in the 1960s. “It is vital. There are around 11,000 orangutans in Sabah alone and as well as the problems faced with deforestation some orangutans are hunted or captured by locals for pets.”
With UN scientists predicting that deforestation could lead to the extinction of orangutans in 2012, it is obvious that the rehabilitation work she and her colleagues undertake is, and should be, the priority of the centre.
For information on sponsoring an orangutan, see: www.orangutanappeal.org.uk/